Baseball is not normally a sport that allows for hot takes or major reactions that end up making a lot of sense by the time the 162-game marathon reaches the finish line. 

But in this 60-game sprint of 2020, nothing’s normal. Every game is magnified. That’s why it’s fair to say that on Wednesday night, the Indians put up their biggest win of the season to date. 

For a second straight night, Cleveland’s offense came alive, a sharp reverse from 48 hours earlier when the Tribe went 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position and left 11 on base in a series opener loss to the first-place Twins. Yet, it’s in the response from that against a team that, when healthy, is a championship level contender, that provides the most telling moment of Cleveland’s season thus far. A loss on Wednesday, and the Indians would have been two and a half games back of the Twins with 29 left. Instead, they find themselves just a half game back, after a dramatic 6-3 victory over Minnesota to take the rubber match. 

In a 3-3 game in the eighth inning, it was only fitting that Sergio Romo was on the rubber for the Twins. After chirping with the Indians dugout on Monday night and getting the best of Cleveland in the series opener, the Tribe had the final word on Wednesday. 

Carlos Santana led off with a single. Baserunners have been a more common sight lately. Franmil Reyes worked a walk. The table was set, but for a bottom four in the lineup that entered the series with Minnesota with a combined .153 batting average on the year. Cleveland’s had the feel of a team that, if the top five in the order aren’t producing, the bottom four are certainly not picking them up. On this night, though, the script was flipped with the outfielder who’s done everything to make a case to be in the lineup every day: Tyler Naquin. The right fielder laced an RBI double the other way, heading into the left field corner to score Santana. The hit pushed the Cleveland right fielder to a 9-for-his-last-16 mark.

“A guy like Romo, he’s got good stuff,” Naquin said when asked about his clutch knock. “You know he’s going to try to keep you off-balance with his changeup and slider, and just not try to do too much. You can’t get bait on him. He threw that changeup, the first one I fouled off. The next one, he left a little more over the plate and I was able to just shoot it the other way.”

The lead was 4-3, but with two still on and just one out, it was an opportunity for the Tribe to find insurance for Brad Hand. Situational hitting has been more cold than hot, but not on this night. Not when the Indians needed to package together some of their best baseball of the season to date. Greg Allen hit a sac liner to right field to score Reyes. And with two outs, arguably the most consistent hitter in the lineup, Cesar Hernandez put the cherry on top with an RBI single. Score six runs for this pitching staff? Book it. Cleveland moved to 15-2 when scoring three or more runs in a game – 15-2. 

“We always play competitive baseball against Minnesota,” fill-in manager Sandy Alomar, who is now 11-5 in the role, said. “Last year, we won more games than we lost against them. They know we come and play them well. We have the pitching to compete with them.”

Speaking of that pitching, Mike Clevinger provided the extra layer to the storyline of Wednesday’s ‘could really use it’ game for the Indians. Making his first start since August 5 due to breaking team COVID-19 protocols in Chicago, Clevinger overcame early rust to twirl six innings and strike out 10. His fastball was as good as it’s been this year, touching 96.5 miles per hour and averaging out at 95.1. Out of his 42 heaters, nine produced whiffs and seven were called for strikes. With 15 sliders, 14 changeups, eight cutters and seven curveballs totaling together for his 86 pitches, Clevinger felt like his 2019 self on the mound. 

“I was telling Carl (Willis) and Ruben (Niebla), I started looking at all the reports and the metrics of my stuff, so I’m like, ‘This is me. Not me from earlier this year. This was like old me,” Clevinger said. “Things started clicking. I was feeling the same things I was feeling the last two years. That was the most exciting part to see. My velocity ticked back up. I was really starting to feel like, it almost felt like the other starts, I was going out there to try to mimic what I did before and try to feel certain feelings. Then it finally felt, my mechanics, my hip-shoulder separation, everything started to click again like it was like the actual real feeling versus trying to mimic the feeling.” 

After allowing a run in each of the first two innings, Clevinger settled in with four straight zeroes on the board, allowing the Indians offense to answer with a Jose Ramirez three-run homer in the third to give Cleveland the edge. It marked Ramirez’s sixth bomb of the campaign. Even more importantly, it was a second straight night that the Indians got a major contribution of the duo of Ramirez or Lindor, who went 2-for-5 and appears to have found a rhythm as of late. 

It might be Game #31, and there’s another month left to play, but that doesn’t take away from the magnitude of the win. Clevinger admitted that. 

“Every single game is going to be a playoff game, especially against them (the Twins),” Clevinger said. “I definitely treated it like that this time. Even last time (Aug. 31), I tried hard to keep it at four runs (against the Twins). I had F-minus stuff that game. But, I mean, I treat every pitch like it meant everything.” 

It’s in those words that lie the reason why the 29-year-old was on the rubber Wednesday night: not for a showcase of his talents, but to help his team win. 

“I’m trying to win a ring for the Tribe,” Clevinger said. 

Perhaps he could be on the move, with a second arbitration ahead and this likely his last season in an Indians uniform, but the pursuit of that ring might very well be more valuable than any package Cleveland would get offered. 

Elsewhere within the team’s critical win, came a high-leverage pitching performance out of the bullpen. No, not from James Karinchak on this Wednesday night. Instead, 27-year-old Phil Maton, who had not pitched in five days, needed just 12 pitches to deal an inning and two-thirds in relief duty. 

“The guys really love the way his ball rides,” Alomar said of Maton after the win. “(He has) a great breaking ball, and he’s becoming very effective against lefties. He’s a good weapon to have in the pen now that you need to face three batters. He’s doing a great job.” 

Maton’s just another weapon in a bullpen that’s collected a 2.57 ERA, third-best in all of baseball. 

The performance just had a completeness to it, with the offense delivering for a second straight night and Cleveland notching its ninth win in 12 games. 

“Any time you win a series against Minnesota, it’s great,” Alomar said. “We’re chasing them.” 

That chase just intensified on Wednesday, setting up a final month that will in all likelihood see the AL Central Division being the most competitive in all of baseball.

Photo credit Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

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